P. J. O’Rourke takes the decline of the American car personally. And not just because his family has sold Buicks for three generations. In his latest book Driving Like Crazy, O’Rourke sees the very story of our nation written in the crazy, chrome-clad arc of American automobilia. From “the sheer genius that transformed the 1908 Model T into the 1965 Shelby Cobra GT500 in a single human lifetime of speeding tickets” to the industry’s decades-long “sayonara,” O’Rourke reflects on where we’ve been and what we drove to get there. But he also knows that cars are about more important things than mere cultural and political commentary. They’re about fun. Fast fun. Busting axles in Baja fun. Pointing a big, noisy car at the horizon and burying the gas pedal fun. And what’s more American than that?
Driving Like Crazy compiles O’Rourke’s automotive writings, spanning a career well spent at publications like Car and Driver, Automobile, National Lampoon and Rolling Stone, among others. It is only appropriate then, that Like Crazy bounces and jolts across topics like a Jeep on an old logging road. From a National Lampoon treatise on “How To Drive Fast On Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed And Not Spill Your Drink” to a gonzo Baja road test with the cream of American automotive journalism, from NASCAR to the “Geezer Grand Prix” (California Mille), O’Rourke takes on all things automotive with his trademark razor-sharp wit.
But Driving Like Crazy is not simply a collection of automotive O’Rourkisms past. The author revisits each of his pieces with the benefit of a lifetime of living the American romance with cars. The result is a timely mix of nostalgia and topicality; the excesses of youth tempered with reflections on a life that has witnessed the glorious past and ignominious present of the American automobile.
Indeed, the lamentable state of American enthusiasm for automobiles seems to be the driving force behind this anthology. A nefarious group that O’Rourke identifies as “The Fun Suckers” have latched onto the automobile, turning it into “a public enemy, an outlaw they could persecute without compunction.” From pollution controls to safety features, from speed limits to DUI hysteria, this “Fun Sux Klan” has deprived generations of the essential freedom, fear and fun that O’Rourke most highly prizes in his automotive interactions.
And it’s no wonder O’Rourke takes fun so seriously. His life has been chock-full of the stuff. Before even hitting his stride with boozy explorations of NASCAR, Baja, and, er, Illinois, he was exhorting the readers of National Lampoon to “get drunk and drive like a fool.” Now, twice as old as when he wrote “How To Drive Fast On Drugs,” he follows up on his own advice. A younger PJ suggested that with enough courage and strength of character, a drug-addled, girl-crazed young man could die in a fiery wreck, thus saving him from balding, Country Squire-owning decline. An older O’Rourke questioned his younger self’s ability to acquire the necessary drugs, girls and fast cars to even make a go of it. Plus, “to be young is to be driving in the figure-eight races and demo derbies of life. There’s better fun to be had as you head toward the finish line at Monte Carlo,” he advises.
If you agree with this sentiment, you’ll appreciate the progression of O’Rourke’s work. From youthful incitement to early death through several decidedly gonzo interludes, Driving Like Crazy eventually finds its author discovering more prosaic inspiration. Buying a family car. Defending SUVs from the British. Family road trips in a Ford Flex. Younger readers may see the bleak visions of slow death by Country Squire coming true. Certainly, “the finish line at Monte Carlo” is less glamorous, less obviously fun than you might expect.
But don’t cry for P. J. The old bastard has had his fun. In fact, as Driving Like Crazy progresses, the gonzo levels drop off and are replaced with ever more frequent complaints about fun suckers. But having just read pedal-to-the-metal accounts of booze-soaked junkets, destroyed press cars and general misbehavior (on a healthy expense account), one can’t help but wonder if O’Rourke’s fast living, fast driving ethos hasn’t inspired the very fun suckers he despises.
Though O’Rourke rages against the dying of the light (and now knows which poet he’s referencing), he’s had a front row seat for one of the most epic sunsets in American history. Good thing, then, that he’s such a talented writer. His diatribes may do nothing to bring back the days of rumbling V8s, perpetual drunkenness and small-town girls begging to be whisked away by men on motorcycles, but his vivid recollections bring them to life in the reader’s imagination.
As the age of the American car slips into memory, writers like O’Rourke remind those of us who missed it that the future need not be ever more quiet, safe and appliance-like. At the very least, his writings provide a poignant counterpoint to the neutered, socialized culture and industry currently surrounding cars in America. The presence of which proves that there really are worse things than going out early “in a blaze of flaming aluminum alloys formulated specially for the Porsche factory race effort.”
Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll be out burning the last of the hydrocarbons as an offering to the few remaining gods of fun. That way, if I don’t die young, some whippersnapper of the future can accuse me of ruining the fun for his and all coming generations. Which, if I’ve learned anything from P. J. O’Rourke, is the only way to know you’ve actually had any.